Filial Pity: Is South Korea Doing Enough to Stop Elderly Suicides?

Why some South Koreans are calling their country the Republic of Suicide

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Jean Chung / International Herald Tribune / Redux

Lee Geum-sook, a volunteer for elderly people, right, tries to comfort Yoon Jeom-do, an 89-year-old woman who lives alone in an apartment in the Nowon district in Seoul, as she sheds tears, on Oct. 18, 2012

The Korea Suicide Prevention Center has a message for the people of South Korea: “Life is precious! We can protect it.” The slogan, displayed in pamphlets, placards and on its website, is meant to encourage people to seek help if they are feeling suicidal. All too often, it seems, that message is not getting through. An average of 43 people commit suicide on any given day, making South Korea the most suicide-prone country in the developed world. Unlike most rich countries, South Korea’s suicide rate — nearly triple that of the U.S. — has been rising dramatically, jumping by 101.8% from 2000 to 2010. The rate is twice as high among the elderly.

(MORE: South Korea Rattled by Suicide of Bullied Teen)

Why are South Korean seniors so prone to suicide? Though researchers are still trying to understand the trend, they point to several overlapping factors. For one, there’s history. Social workers say suicide among the elderly population is in some ways a by-product of the country’s breakneck industrialization, an economic transformation that turned South Korea into one of the richest nations in the world. During this time especially, the whole country was so fixated on prosperity that people who were more economically productive were considered more valuable members of society. That perception still exists. Elderly citizens, who are generally perceived as less productive, are therefore seen as less valuable. “Our society has become extremely competitive in the past 30 to 40 years of economic development, and we have turned into a society that does not care for our weakest members,” explains Kim Dong-hyun, who teaches social medicine at Hallym University.

The country’s economic transformation has changed social relations too. Confucianism, which emphasizes filial piety, has been the bedrock of Korean society for hundreds of years and, historically, older citizens would rely on their children to take care of them. That is changing and has been compounded by high rates of migration. Today many older Koreans do not live under same roof as their children and grandchildren. “The collapse of communities and the collective ostracization of elderly citizens are driving them over the edge,” says Kim.

When the elderly end up alone, they often have little in the way of a safety net. South Korea has one of the lowest rates of social spending among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the country’s old-age poverty rate is the highest among rich nations. In 2005, more than 45% of Koreans aged 65 and above lived in relative poverty, according to the OECD. Seoul introduced a national pension service, but in 1988 — too late for many of today’s elderly citizens. In 2008, the government started the Basic Old-Age Pension System for people who meet income and asset requirements; roughly 70% of the elderly receive benefits under this scheme. Even so, the amount they receive sometimes falls short of the elderly living costs recommended by the Ministry of Health and Welfare.

(MORE: Seoul Launches Suicide Watchdog)

The government is starting to take some action. Two years ago, Seoul enacted a suicide-prevention law, but a meager budget constrains the effectiveness and scope of government policies. Last year, according to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), the government spent $3 million on suicide-prevention programs — a mere 0.5% of what Japan spent in 2010 for the same purpose. Earlier this month, the Ministry of Health and Welfare started a new suicide-prevention program called Look, Listen, Talk for caretakers and schoolteachers. And two weeks ago, the National Assembly launched a campaign to expand counseling services for suicide-prone citizens. Although such programs are necessary, critics say they focus on intervention rather than getting rid of conditions that push people over the edge. “For prevention projects we need budgetary support,” says Chang Young-sik a researcher at KIHASA. “The government has tried to cope with the problem but it has not done enough yet.”

On the policy front, the government needs to invest more money to promote the well-being of senior citizens. A bigger budget for the elderly means more jobs and community centers and higher basic pension benefits — all of which could help alleviate old-age poverty and loneliness. “We need to think about the fundamental problem of why so many elderly citizens are mired in poverty and driven to despair,” says Ha Jung-hwa, a professor of social welfare at Seoul National University. “I wish Korean society would operate under the basic premise that elderly citizens also have a right to happiness and a right to end their lives with beauty.”